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(Soon After 8:46 a.m.-9:35 a.m.) September 11, 2001: Emergency Management Staff go to North Tower, Leaving Special Command Center Nearly Vacant
Richard Sheirer is in a meeting at New York City Hall when he is informed by telephone of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center. Sheirer is the director of the Mayor’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM), which was set up in 1996 to coordinate the city’s overall response to major incidents, including terrorism (see 1996). It has an emergency command center on the 23rd floor of WTC 7, specially intended for coordinating the response to catastrophes such as terrorist attacks (see June 8, 1999). Yet instead of going to this, Sheirer heads to the North Tower, and arrives at the fire command post set up in its lobby before the second crash at 9:03 a.m. [New York Magazine, 10/15/2001; 9/11 Commission, 5/18/2004 pdf file] John Odermatt, Sheirer’s top deputy, also goes to the North Tower and says that, after the first plane hit, he leaves only two staffers at the command center. John Farmer, who heads the 9/11 Commission unit that assesses the city response to the attacks, will find it “strange that Sheirer, four OEM deputies, and a field responder went straight to the North Tower… rather than to the nearby emergency command center.” Journalists Wayne Barrett and Dan Collins will conclude, “[T]he command center was out of business from the outset.” [Barrett and Collins, 2006, pp. 31 and 34] Sheirer stays at the North Tower lobby until soon after 9:30 a.m., when Mayor Giuliani requests he joins him at the temporary command post at 75 Barclay Street (see (9:50 a.m.-10:10 a.m.) September 11, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 5/18/2004 pdf file] John Farmer will later complain, “We [the 9/11 Commission] tried to get a sense of what Sheirer was really doing. We tried to figure it out from the videos. We couldn’t tell. Everybody from OEM was with him, virtually the whole chain of command. Some of them should have been at the command center.” Fire Captain Kevin Culley, who works as a field responder at OEM, is later asked why most of the OEM’s top brass were with him at the scene of the incident. He says, “I don’t know what they were doing. It was Sheirer’s decision to go there on his own. The command center would normally be the focus of a major event and that would be where I would expect the director to be.” When the 9/11 Commission later investigates OEM’s shortcomings on 9/11, “No rationale for Sheirer’s prolonged lobby stay, no information conveyed to commanders, and no steps to coordinate the response” will be discovered. [Barrett and Collins, 2006, pp. 31-32 and 34]
Late October 2003: 9/11 Commission’s Tour of NEADS Facility Suspended Over Discrepancies
Several months into its investigation, the 9/11 Commission is already dissatisfied with the Department of Defense (see July 8, 2003). When its staff take a tour of a Northeast Air Defense Sector facility in Rome, New York, which helped coordinate the air defense on the day of 9/11, the staff enter the operations room, which has “more than twenty banks of operators: some weapons controllers and some flight controllers.” The staff find that the operators’ conversations are always tape-recorded, but the tapes for 9/11 have not yet been sent to the commission and, according to Commission Chairman Tom Kean and Vice-Chairman Lee Hamilton, “there were also discrepancies between things NORAD was telling [the commission] about their performance on the morning of September—things that the agency had stated publicly after 9/11—and the story told by the limited tapes and documents the commission had received.” Upon learning of the existence of the tapes, team leader John Farmer immediately suspends the tour and the interviews and flies to meet Kean in New Jersey. The commission subsequently subpoenas NORAD for the tapes (see October-November 2003), but, according to Kean and Hamilton, this means that “the staff had lost so much time that our hearing on the 9/11 story in the skies was postponed for months. Indeed, the delays from NORAD and the FAA made it highly unlikely that the team could complete its work as scheduled.” [Kean and Hamilton, 2006, pp. 85-88] Chapter 1 of the commission’s final report will draw heavily on the tapes. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 1-46] However, the commission does not make the same effort with all day of 9/11 recordings. For example, it does not even find out which person(s) from the Department of Defense participated in a White House video conference chaired by counter-terrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke during the attacks. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 36]
Shortly before July 22, 2004: 9/11 Commission Debates Referring Military and Aviation Officials to Justice Department for Criminal Investigation
Towards the end of its tenure, the ten members of the 9/11 Commission secretly meet to discuss whether military and aviation officials deliberately misled them and the public. For over two years following 9/11, NORAD and the FAA had given information in testimony and media appearances later found to be incorrect. Authorities claimed that America’s air defenses reacted quickly on 9/11, with fighters launched in response to the last two hijackings and ready to shoot down Flight 93 if it threatened Washington, DC. Yet audiotapes from the FAA and NORAD obtained by the commission under subpoena showed that the military never had any of the hijacked airliners in its sights and only became aware of Flight 93 after it crashed. John Farmer, a senior counsel to the commission, says the military’s original story was “a whole different order of magnitude than spin. It simply wasn’t true.” The commissioners debate whether to refer the matter to the Justice Department for criminal investigation, but as a compromise they instead refer it to the inspectors general for the Pentagon and the Transportation Department (which includes the FAA). The Pentagon inspector general’s office will issue a secret report to Congress in May 2005, blaming the inaccuracies partly on “inadequate forensic capabilities,” including poor log keeping at the military air traffic control centers (see May 27, 2005). However, Farmer and other commission staff will later point out that the military had already reviewed the NORAD audiotapes before its officials gave their inaccurate testimonies. The 9/11 Commission’s concerns over whether it was deliberately misled will only come to light in news reports in August 2006. Thomas Kean, its former chairman, will say, “We to this day don’t know why NORAD told us what they told us. It was just so far from the truth.” [Vanity Fair, 8/1/2006; Washington Post, 8/2/2006; New York Times, 8/5/2006] The Transportation Department’s inspector general’s office will issue its report in response to the commission’s referral in September 2006 (see September 1, 2006).